WASHINGTON -- Herman Cain's rise in the polls this week doesn't change the fact that Mitt Romney is still the most likely Republican nominee for president, but it does underscore the biggest remaining question mark about him: If he wins the primary, will that kill the Tea Party?
In other words, will the conservative grassroots turn out in force for a Romney ticket -- not only to vote, but also to organize and recruit supporters -- like they did in the 2010 midterm elections? Romney's critics argue they won't.
FreedomWorks President Matt Kibbe raised the prospect of a third party candidate if the former Massachusetts governor is the nominee, telling The New York Times this week that at the very least, a Romney candidacy would discourage conservative activism in the 2012 election.
Advisers to Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R), whose $15 million war chest will keep him around as a challenger to Romney despite his recent stumbles, are beginning to latch on to this argument.
"The fundamental problem Mitt Romney will have will be to sell his East Coast, government-knows-all views to the base. He's the modern day equivalent of Nelson Rockefeller trying to sell himself to Ronald Reagan's party," said Bob Haus, a co-chair of Perry's Iowa campaign. "Carbon taxes, government-run health care and repeated flip flops are going to make that sale hard."
John Stemberger, a former Florida GOP official and Rick Perry supporter, wrote Thursday in Newsmax, "Mitt Romney is another John McCain waiting to happen. There is no way the base is going to be excited about and pour themselves into a Romney campaign."
Interviews with several Tea Party activists and conservative officials in early primary and swing states showed some agreement with that sentiment. But there were a surprising number who said they would work for the Republican nominee no matter who it is, even if it is Romney.
"Most people do not like Romney," said Dave Zupan, a Tea Party leader from the Cleveland suburbs. But, Zupan told The Huffington Post, "our goal is to beat Obama and flip the Senate. So if [Romney]'s the candidate, we're going to beat Obama with him and we're going to flip the Senate."
"The Tea Party's going to show up for whoever's the candidate. We're focused on a goal," said Zupan, who is active in two local Ohio groups and is also on a 12-member Tea Party Debt Commission organized in part by FreedomWorks, a D.C.-based national organization that works with grassroots groups around the country.
Zupan said that giving control of the Senate over to Republicans would be a way to hem Romney in, helping ensure he fulfills promises to conservatives such as repealing Obama's health law.
The Romney campaign believes that unlike the 2008 election, when Democratic voters were spurred by passion for their candidate, Republicans will be motivated in 2012 not by personality but by their view of current circumstances. Many Tea Party activists believe that the country is at a crisis point and that a second term for Obama would make it impossible in the future to reduce the size of government.
"We have one last opportunity to turn this country around," said Ana Puig, mother of four and a Tea Party activist from the Philadelphia suburbs.
Romney's brain trust is betting that conservatives like Puig will make up for what their candidate lacks in personal dynamism and conservative orthodoxy.
"If Mitt Romney becomes the nominee, the entire party will rally behind him as the strongest leader on the paramount issue of our time -- putting America back to work," top Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom told HuffPost. "He will then go on to defeat President Obama and begin the task of turning around a very troubled economy."
Despite the conservative angst about Romney's authenticity, he has performed well as a candidate. In addition, a long list of potential rivals have decided not to run, and the other candidates who are in the race have failed to mount a serious challenge to Romney. So he remains in a strong position. Republican pollster Ed Goeas said he could see Romney's poll numbers, which have not broken above 25 percent for most of the campaign, getting into the high 30s or even low 40s in the next month.
Even Kibbe, during an interview with HuffPost last month, gave off evidence that he was resigning himself to a Romney candidacy. But a Republican party whose most active participants have simply settled for their nominee will not be enough to defeat Obama, who holds the formidable advantages that come with incumbency.
"If Romney is the nominee I think you end up with the pure question on the ballot on election day, which is, 'Are you firing Barack Obama?'" South Carolina state Rep. Kris Crawford (R), who organized a movement to encourage New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to run earlier this year, told HuffPost.
Crawford, who has not endorsed any of the presidential candidates, said Romney would "take some of the heat out of the game" for conservative activists in the Palmetto State. But he added that South Carolina will go for the Republican nominee no matter who it is, so the Romney impact would be negligible there.
Bob MacGuffie, a Tea Party activist from Fairfield, C.T., said that even though he would support Romney if he won the primary, such a scenario would produce "a lot of idle engines" in the general election.
"There's no short answer to it. Obviously we don't move as a monolith," MacGuffie told HuffPost. "There will be a good chunk who will sit on their hands, others will turn to anti-Obama activism and there's a good chunk who will say, 'He's our nominee and we've got to help him win.'"
Jerry DeLemus, who leads a Tea Party group in Rochester, N.H., was the only activist who spoke to HuffPost who said categorically that he will not campaign for Romney, though he said he didn't rule out voting for him.
"Everybody in the Tea Party movement wants to see Obama not win a second term, for a variety of reasons. And there are those in there who may go ahead and support Romney. I'm not one of those guys who will say that," DeLemus said.
But several other Tea Party activists and conservatives, like Zupan, were just as adamant that they will work for Romney if he beats the other Republican candidates.
"If he's the last man standing, would you see people charge up the hill -- maybe myself included -- to try to beat Barack Obama? Probably," said the leader of one of the most influential national Tea Party groups who asked not to be identified. "I admitted to my wife, there are far worse things than Mitt Romney being our nominee."
Puig said skeptics are "going to be surprised."
"I think we will be energized no matter who it is," she said. "The Tea Party movement started because of the election of Barack Obama. So now is the time to take him out."